Morton Feldman was, it could be fairly said, the twentieth century’s most talkative composer. Always willing to speak his mind and rarely opting not to, Feldman told all in countless interviews and lectures about his life, his music, the visual arts, and the problems young artists face today and how to solve them. He was, like so many avant-garde artists of the mid-twentieth century, almost as much philosopher as creator: he wanted not only to write music but also to change the way listeners heard it. A wisecrack with a towering personality — not to mention a towering six-foot figure — he dazzled and bewildered his peers with his directness and singular insight. When discussing his own work, he left few potential enigmas unaddressed. Yet as his critics love to point out, the music Feldman wrote, in the words of one admirer, “seldom rose above a whisper.” Sonorities change imperceptibly in a meditative stasis that may last for hours. Melodies appear rarely; when they did, Feldman sometimes dismissed the work as “minor,” as in the case of his 1971 choral work, “Rothko Chapel.” Structure, either harmonic or rhythmic, is often hard for the listener to grasp — a deliberate thwarting on Feldman’s part of the audience’s expectation of some kind of “system.” At first glance, Feldman’s music lives in stark contrast to his verbosity, his eagerness to wax poetic about music history or art. Today he seems to be remembered as a serious composer who compensated for his quiet music with loud words. Yet there is a significant congruence between Feldman’s compositional aesthetic and his philosophy. He viewed his own compositions highly — a degree of self-importance can be detected in some interviews — yet also as somehow crucial in the history of American composition. Feldman’s steadfast technique purposely denied listeners that which they had come to expect from modern music. He was acutely aware of formal and technical developments in the composing world, yet rejected most of them as manifestations of artists’ egos. Feldman wished, more than anything, to teach his audience about the beauty of sound.
Feldman, a lifelong New Yorker, developed a penchant for writing unusually slow and static music early on. He was born in 1926 to Jewish-Russian parents, Irving and Frances Feldman, who had immigrated to the United States from Kiev as children. Feldman had what he described as a “conventional” childhood in a house with “conventional” furniture. He began piano lessons at a young age with the Russian ex-aristocrat Vera Maurina Press, who had known both Alexander Scriabin and Ferruccio Busoni, and took up composition lessons in high school with Wallingford Riegger, one of the first American twelve-tone composers, and then with Stefan Wolpe. Wolpe seemed to make the biggest impression on the young composer. He instructed Feldman to consider the length of time it takes for a given sound to travel to the back of a music hall, reverse its direction, and return to the performer. Even in Feldman’s early, imitative works, one can detect a certain patience with sounds: chords last longer than one would expect from a Bartók or Stravinsky-style work. Wolpe also introduced the young composer to the noise-based music of Edgard Varèse, whom Feldman would consider to be one of his greatest influences (“What would my life have been without Varèse?” he wrote later). Feldman also recounted a time in high school when he and his friends formed a kind of composers’ club. “This had no supervision from any kind of teachers,” he said in a 1966 interview with Alan Beckett, “it was a marvelous thing, we made our own scene.” Throughout his life, Feldman often criticized traditional music education (specifically, academia) for imposing “systems” like serialism or twelve-tone onto young composers. He thought artistic style should develop freely in individuals.
Feldman’s full artistic liberation didn’t arrive until a chance meeting with John Cage at Carnegie Hall in 1950. According to the famous story, both composers attended a concert with a Webern symphony billed first, but left the hall simultaneously just before the start of the following piece, a Rachmaninoff, lest the modernist work be tarnished by Russian romanticism. Feldman walked over to Cage, asked, “Wasn’t that extraordinary?” and the friendship was born. Soon the twenty-four year-old Feldman found himself living in Cage’s building on East River Drive — the famous bohemian artist residence called “Bosa’s Mansion” — where he was surrounded by painters and composers. He arrived during the heyday of the famous “New York School” of artists. Cage, then 40, was a generation older than Feldman, and introduced him to all the important figures; Feldman mingled with Christian Wolff and David Tudor, Robert Rauschenberg and Phillip Guston. He lived at the center of the avant-garde scene in the modern capital of avant-garde art, frequenting artist hot spots like the Cedar Bar and attending club meetings of the New York School painters. He was, to use the modern phrase, a social butterfly. In one of his more nostalgic essays, “Give My Regards to Eighth Street” (1971), Feldman recounts his time at Bosa’s Mansion — of how he acquired his first painting, a Rauschenberg, for $16 and some change (he sold it late in life for $600,000), of the parties he went to attended by Max Ernst and Willem De Kooning and Virgil Thompson (“The faces of these people,” he writes, “Unforgettable faces”), and of a serendipitous encounter that led him to the critic Clement Greenberg’s apartment, where Greenberg and De Kooning argued over approaches to interpreting Cézanne.
In “Give My Regards to Eighth Street” Feldman also displays a clear adoration for the visual arts, which, especially at the beginning of his composing career, strongly influenced his music. (Of course, he loved to deny any direct influence.) In Feldman’s discussion of painting, some common themes from his philosophical rhetoric arise, namely a dislike of “process” in art and a rejection of “ideas” dictating the form of a given work. For example, on the term used by critics to describe the physical process of painters like Jackson Pollock, Feldman writes, “[p]ersonally, I have never understood the term ‘Action Painting’ as a description of the work of the fifties. The closest I can come to its meaning is that the painter tries for a less predeterminate structure.” He continues, “[t]hat does not mean, however, that there was an indeterminate intention,” i.e., that the painters did not put specific thought into organizing their work, even if it did not use past forms. What Feldman is driving at here, and what seems to be key to his time spent at Bosa’s Mansion, is that the New York School allowed him to compose his odd, patient music with a free conscience. “Freedom is best understood by someone like Rothko,” he writes, “who was free to do only one thing — to make a Rothko — and did so over and over again.” If living with Cage taught him anything about music, it was that every artist had the right to develop his own style, independent of historical precedent. In music composition, especially before the ’50s, that precedent — what with twelve-tone, serialism, neo-classicism, and neo-romanticism — was very strong. Feldman may not have abided by Cage’s “any-noise-is-music” philosophy, but he certainly gained confidence from it.
As mentioned, one can draw direct corollaries between some of Feldman’s early compositions and the work of visual artists. In an autobiographical essay, Feldman writes that during his stay at Bosa’s Mansion, “there was very little talk about music with John [Cage]” but that “there was an incredible amount of talk about painting.” The painting inspired him to convey “a sound world more direct, more immediate, more physical than anything that had existed heretofore.” To achieve this “ more direct” sound world, Feldman turned away from traditional music notation (clefs, staffs, note heads) in the early ’50s, and wrote a number of pieces using his own specialized graphic notation system — a series of grids and boxes that denote rhythms and general register but no specific pitches. Feldman was among the first composers to experiment with non-traditional notation, although by the mid-’60s he grew disinterested in it. Works such as his “Projections I-V” (1950-51), “Intersections I-IV” (1951-53), and “The King of Denmark” (1965) implemented the unusual notation system.
Feldman’s scores from this period have an abstract visual quality, somewhat reminiscent of the brightly colored grid paintings of the Dutch painter Mondrian, for whom Feldman has declared his admiration on many occasions. “Projection II” (1951) for flute, trumpet, violin, cello, and piano in particular is aesthetically appealing, since Feldman left out grid squares for measures in which an instrument does not play. The “grid” of the composition looks asymmetrical, with holes in some places and detailed spots in others. Feldman, always keen on explaining himself, argued that the visual aspect of these scores was necessitated by the musical effect he was aiming for. On “Projection II,” he writes, “[m]y desire here was not to ‘compose’, but to project sounds into time, free from a compositional rhetoric that had no place here… Because the sounds no longer had an inherent symbolic shape, I allowed for indeterminacies in regard to pitch.” In the phrase “inherent symbolic shape,” Feldman likely refers to pitch relationships in traditionally notated compositions. Phrases of certain bar lengths, intervals that resolve in meaningful ways — all these standard practices were dispelled with his graphic notation. Feldman deliberately dispensed of any musical structure or technique that resembled a work of the past. Graphic notation, even if it did not stick for him through the years, certainly made his radical intentions clear in 1951.
And, indeed, the musical result is unprecedented. “Projection II” is a sparse, haphazard-sounding arrangement of pitches between five instruments. The dynamic range is slim, hovering between very quiet and mildly agitated. Feldman achieves color by indicating harmonics, pizzicato, and arco (bowed playing) in the pitch poxes (“A” for arco, “Pz” for pizzicato, and a diamond shape for harmonics). Register seems to motivate the piece — heightened tension occurs in moments when the instruments cluster together briefly in the stratosphere. Rhythm is indicated by the placement of pitch boxes within Feldman’s grid system, and the slow pulse remains constant. Yet for all the complexity and striking pitch indeterminacy that the graphic system brings to “Projection II,” the work’s most conspicuous feature is its orchestration (flute, trumpet, violin, cello, and piano). Feldman believed that the choice of instruments completely determined the sonic world of a given composition, since each instrument produces a unique sound. Even in an early work like the “Projection” series, it is clear that Feldman was preoccupied less with form, pitch relationships, or any formal aspect twentieth-century composers generally considered paramount, than with vertical, static sounds. Feldman articulated this idea in an interview with Paul Griffiths from 1972: “For me, composition is orchestration… Though my music sounds pretty much the same to many people, it’s very different to me with the change in orchestration; because my compositional impetus is in terms of the vertical quality, and not what happens in terms of the horizontal scheme.” Sounds in isolation are the focus of most Feldman compositions, which helps to explain their often glacial pace and hushed dynamics. He wanted his listeners to concentrate.
Feldman’s fascination with sound and his disinterest in the so-called “horizontal scheme” lent him a didactic tone in his interviews, lectures, and essays. He often took a contrary attitude during interviews, answering questions that should have received a positive answer with a negative one (and vice versa) or at least an oblique one, as if he enjoyed thwarting his interviewer’s expectation at every step. Nevertheless, he usually had something substantial to relate, whether it was his negative stance on the idea of compositional “progress” lurking behind most new works, his dislike of standard musical “forms” (like twelve-tone, or even the sonata), or the inability of most listeners to hear true “sounds.” In a telling 1964 interview with Robert Ashley, for example, he articulated his problems with “schools” of composition, as manifested recently by composers like Stockhausen. Most young contemporary composers, he argued, began by discovering a “mystical” aesthetic of their own, which over time was politicized and turned into something rotten. “By the time the young composer gets in touch with a particular work,” said Feldman, “it is already in a power struggle with other works and other ideas. The intention, the aesthetic of the work may be a complete mystery to this young composer. But in the form of politics it is not a mystery. It is very concrete.” In other words, as soon as a young composer discovers some kind of new sound or organizing scheme for his or her music, other composers latch on and quickly politicize it as “progress” or the “next logical step” in the development of the classical tradition. As a result, the imitators become so-called “revisionists.” The revisionist, according to Feldman, “takes things from that mysterious region of originality and gives those things a man-made rationale.”
“Revisionist” schools are prevalent in twentieth-century music history: the Second Viennese School fostered the development of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system in the ’20s and ’30s; Milton Babbitt and other serialists held court at “progressive” music conferences at places like Princeton University, where composers gathered to exchange their latest ideas and bask in the technical complexity of their developments. Feldman particularly detested Stockhausen, finding it “interesting” how he “enjoys having around him a large coterie of young people, and how much he enjoys talking and lecturing — converting people.” Perhaps because of the singularity of his own body of work, Feldman criticized composers who imitated each other’s methods. (He also took great pains to downplay as much as possible any direct musical influence that his own “New York School” might have imposed on him. Those guys were all about individual style.) Later in the same interview, Feldman commented that “the reason music is ailing is that everybody is still following the same historical process… that Art comes from Art.” Process hampers originality.
Bearing these thoughts in mind, Feldman’s music seems less passive and mellow, and more like a radical statement against the norm. Feldman knew well that his sometimes agonizingly slow music was difficult for listeners to digest. He genuinely wanted to probe his audience to explore new possibilities of appreciation of what sounded “abnormal.” He had no qualms about discussing his own composition methods — he loved to talk about sound as if it were a musical deity, and was usually frank about how he achieved a particular acoustical effect for the listener. The following passage, from a long and intriguing interview with Walter Zimmerman from 1975, could be called the “Morton Feldman manifesto on sound”:
“I took a militant attitude towards sounds. I wanted sounds to be a metaphor, that they could be as free as a human being might be free. That was my idea about sound. It still is, that they should breathe … not to be used for the vested interest of an idea. I feel that music should have no vested interests, that you shouldn’t know if there’s a system, that you shouldn’t know anything about it … except that it’s some kind of life force that to some degree really changes your life … if you’re into it.”
Feldman exhibits an almost emotional attitude toward music, as if he genuinely felt the need to “free” sounds from the cruel bonds of serialism and other “revisionist” schools. In a way, he anthropomorphizes the role of sound in music history. Sound “breathes” and can be abused by those with “vested interests.” If a system exists to organize it, you “shouldn’t know” it’s there. More than anything, Feldman avidly downplay the role of “composer-as-egoist” or “composer-as-ingenious-hero.” During a time when serial composers philosophized about the superior intellectual nature of their avant-garde work (Milton Babbitt’s 1958 essay, “Who Cares If You Listen?” comes to mind), Feldman calls for the opposite action: Give sound the room to speak for itself, and it will be meaningful. Do not impose your will or your technique on the music. In the same Zimmerman interview, Feldman professed, “I feel that I listen to my sounds, and I do what they tell me, not what I tell them. Because I owe my life to these sounds.”
When you listen for the acute acoustical effect Feldman inked on the page, Felman’s music becomes all the more powerful. Feldman sought beauty in the purest distillation of sounds that could be produced by traditional instruments. He once said that he has “yet to hear” a trombone player produce a pure tone without any attack. He did eventually write more tuneful and accessible works during his middle period, such as “The Viola in My Life” (1970) and “Rothko Chapel” (1971), but he always held that his early, sparse work was equally important. He said that audiences must “earn the right to like [my later works] by getting to know my earlier works first. I want them to forget their background and their education.” The degree to which Feldman rejected historical precedent in classical music can be somewhat surprising. But he was right: trying to understand Feldman in the context of, say, Beethoven or Schoenberg makes little sense.
Feldman’s compositional development culminated during his later years in very long, slow-changing works. “Piano and string quartet” lasts about 80 minutes, “String Quartet (II)” between five and six hours. Where Feldman described some of his earlier compositions as establishing a new harmonic world with each chord change, in these later pieces he often tried to achieve similar effects by inverting the same chord over and over again. Perhaps he was referring to these static inversions when he wrote in his 1973 essay, “The Anxiety of Art,” that he was content “to be continually rearranging the same furniture in the same room.” Feldman’s late-period explorations in sound are almost as difficult for the listener as for the performer, requiring a sort of meditative state. They utterly banish time from his composing scheme. (It should be mentioned that Feldman outright rejected the possibility that his music was related to Buddhism or Eastern philosophy, which heavily influenced the music of Cage.) Again, as in his earlier pieces, the listener is not expected to follow the formal structure, but instead to contemplate each inversion of a given chord in isolation — vertical sound over the horizontal scheme. The scale has just been magnified.
It is hard to say exactly what prompted Feldman to become such a forceful reactionary against the notion of “musical progress.” He disdained academia and the egos it fostered (he worked for his family’s coat business until he was 44). Certainly his time with Cage and the New York School of artists was influential, freeing him from the bonds of music history to do one thing over and over again: make a “Feldman.” Another plausible factor is that he was Jewish. Feldman professed to feel no connection to the tradition of Western tonality — to the idea that any emotional weight was inherent in a diminished chord or, say, the resolution of the dominant to the tonic. Sometimes he seemed not even to believe in music history. In the Griffiths interview, he strangely commented that he didn’t “feel that Beethoven really emerged from Mozart and Haydn.” At the very least, he thought that Beethoven actively experimented with the old musical forms. Feldman defended implacably that each artist should be free to express his or her “mystical aesthetic” apart from outside pressure and musical politics. His own music is a veritable manifestation of this notion. Feldman could have incorporated swooping melodies, eight-bar phrases, or intervallic structure into his music — perhaps, on occasion, he was tempted to — but to do so would have been to break his own model, his philosophy. Morton Feldman was content to invert a set of chords for hours at a time. Unlike most of us, he discovered therein fantastically unique acoustical realities.